“We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first.”
If a piece of contemporary art is removed from the white cube gallery scenario and exhibited in an earthen roundhouse, does it still have meaning? In a yurt? In the 57th story of a skyscraper? On a subway platform? What if money were only useful while inside a bank building, but once taken out of that context, it could not be used? Wouldn’t we question its real value? What if women were considered worthless outside the home? Would we not have a revolution? Or what if religion were confined to the churches, cathedrals, mosques, or synagogues? Would we not call it hypocrisy?
As a child, I was taught that Heaven was white. Angels are white, sitting on white clouds, wearing white robes, and everything is full of white light. I always imagined spending an eternity in that hospital and this depressed me. Sterility stands starkly opposite creativity, opposite life itself. In Africa, white is indeed the color of death.
The church, the hospital, the sphere of Heaven: all of these are shrouded in an illusion of mystery that is allegedly only revealed to a very select few initiates (the clergy, the doctors, the saints, and the deceased). So it is with the realm of the white cube gallery. “Aha!” say the initiated, with greatest reverence. “Huh?!?” ask the uninitiated common people.
Inside the white cube container scenario, SITE Santa Fe’s current installation on exhibit, artist Ruth Claxton’s mirror mobiles, is mysteriously contemporaneous. Allegedly, this art is to evoke virtual worlds, and mysteries of astrophysics or some such esoteric topics. In reality, I see colored discs of glass, different sizes and tints, stacked melodiously, or perhaps just a bit haphazardly (mimicking chaos theory), around the gallery, with little yard sale porcelain figurines placed hither and thither. These figurines would like to narcissistically gaze at themselves in the mirrors, as I observed gallery goers doing, but instead, the figurines’ heads are covered in snorkels and noodles and other whimsical obstructions. Here I see us as gallery-goers. Is our vision similarly obscured and our ability to self-reflect thus as limited as that of the artist’s mutant Hummels? Have we had the wool pulled over our eyes? If we were to remove Claxton’s work from the white cube contemporary art space and place it inside a baroque castle, would it be effective? Inside an apartment building peppered with bullet holes on the notoriously impoverished and violent south side of Chicago?
The debate about white cubes and picture planes becomes totally irrelevant if one focuses on content of the art rather than formalist conceits. Are literary critics concerned with the flatness of the page? Do they question the trade paperback format for its limiting factors? No. We don’t pick up a book and obsess about the size of the margins. As a book designer, I can tell you that these elements are of course important, but what the people are interested in is what the book says. They want content. The design should hold the content well and be attractive and appropriate, but nobody obsesses about it.
Doherty suggests somewhat drily that white gallery walls have become their own esthetic objects, and that art hung upon these sacred white rectangles in group shows engage in bitter conflicts with one another over space in this sacred zone. What the public has sanctioned and come to expect of our museums and galleries is astonishing, given the lack of resources everywhere else, white space has come to symbolize luxuriousness. Perhaps the public wants to experience the same kind of sterile sanctity that they look for in church, or a similar sense of being controlled and anesthetized that they do in the doctor’s office, or the illusion of opulence that they encounter in bank buildings.
The institutionalization of contemporary art has cost us our common sense as well as our sense of humanity. If, like Doherty says, those white walls have become a battle zone, then I propose triage. In an environment where art funding is scarce, I propose that works that take up the most amount of space and resources while saying the least be removed first. Let us stop pretending that there is deep conceptual awareness where there is none. Are we as a culture as blind as Claxton’s monster Hummels, unable to see ourselves despite countless mirrors?
Art that cannot live outside the white-cube-art-institutional context is dead.